Temperatures in Shanghai have been at or above 100 degrees every day for about three weeks; it's the city's hottest summer in 140 years. The heat has killed 11 and driven tens of thousands into the indoor children's play areas in malls, myself and toddler included.
As their children trampolined in netted cages, nearly every parent—and many grandparents—sat or stood, face glued to a mobile device. Most of them were watching a foreign TV program or film. Granted, I have become accustomed to the sight of Shanghaiers glued to TV programs on tablets and smartphones while waiting for buses or subways, while on buses and subways, in line at KFC and Starbucks, and in a few cases while at work. But at the play area, I watched as parents became oblivious to their children in favor of Korean and US shows. One dad stayed glued to his iPad as his son loudly yelled for the man to watch him go down the slide. He was watching the US show Arrow.
For maybe the first time in over 25 years spent on and off in China, I watched Chinese parents largely ignore their (often otherwise doted-upon) children. All because of the CW Network.
Video sites in China are racking up billions of hours of views and seeing 50 percent quarter-to-quarter growth. Part of this is driven by a three-year, 350 percent growth in mobile web use in lower tier cities and an abandonment of broadcast TV by everyone except the elderly. During December's UEFA soccer championships, one P2P video site recorded viewers numbering 40 percent of CCTV's, a staggering accomplishment.
Youku Tudou, Sohu, Baidu, LeTV and Qiyi are just a few of the unending number of options where users can watch old and new movies from Hollywood as well as currently running shows from China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and the US.
"I love Gossip Girl," one twenty-something Shanghai professional told me, rather embarrassed. She also watches all The Big Bang Theory and The Walking Dead episodes. She's currently very into Two Broke Girls. A decade after it went off the air, Friends is still pulling in millions of Chinese viewers. The woman tells me she'll still go back and rewatch Friends episodes when she's bored.
Youku Tudou—"Tudou" means "potato" in Chinese—recently reported that China viewership of its US TV programs increased 400 percent from 2011 to 2012. In a few cases like Arrow, more Chinese viewers may be watching US shows than Americans. Two Broke Girls episodes regularly log over 1 million views on Sohu alone. The CW cheered as it pulled in over 4 million viewers for the debut of Arrow late last year, which has been viewed 7,912,582 times on Sohu. On Youku, Season 3 of The Walking Dead recently set a record in China with over 95 million viewers. (Notably, Zombie drama Walking Dead was a huge hit in China and faced no censorship issues. Meanwhile, World War Z was denied a China release due to its plot focus on the sensative "subject matter of the undead.")
While there is favoritism shown for easily-accessible plot lines like those offered by Arrow, Friends and Two Broke Girls (i.e., Seinfeld will never, ever have an audience in China), viewers here are displaying an increasingly complex palate.
Another young professional tells me he loves Mad Men. He agrees with his friend, a factory HR representative, that Game of Thrones is addictive. "I watched one whole season one night and was sleeping at my desk the next morning," he admitted.
Showtime's new show Ray Donovan is pulling in viewers in the US but also on Sohu. Season 1, on Sohu alone, has been watched nearly 500,000 times, with another few hundred thousand views on Tudou. Episode 1 of Season 6 of Mad Men has been watched over 580,000 times on Sohu as well. And to drive the nail home on the diversity of possibilities for US programs in China, episode one, season one of Showtime's Homeland and Netflix's House of Cards—both complex dramas involving the extremely foreign minutia of America's political system—have been watched 4.5 and 4.16 million times, respectively. It gets better: those 8.5 million-plus views are from one video platform alone. Keep in mind, DVDs of almost all of these programs are available on the street for a few dollars.
If China's 2010 IPR TV show crackdown—which saw dozens of US programs pulled from video sites—was a low point, today might be China's golden age of watching US TV. Much of this is a result of a deal signed earlier this year which saw Youku Tudou strike a deal with US networks to add a grab bag of 33 American shows to its licensed library.
It's worth noting locals aren't ignoring native programming either. Many of the 86 episodes on Sohu of Chinese comedy Happy Everyday (天天有喜) have 4 to 6 million views, while Taiwan's juggernaut When Love Walked In (爱情闯进门) brings in anywhere from 33 to 44 million views per episode.
While the majority of the attention has been focused on building a market for US films in China, the more attractive, and ultimately more accessible market may be US TV.
Abe Sauer is a brandchannel contributor living in Shanghai.